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Turning Milk to Gold (Butter)

Wholesale Marketing Helps Danforth Jersey Farm Expand its Product Offerings and Reach New Markets.

By Abigail Woughter

Since 1817, Shannon Mason’s family has operated Danforth Jersey Farm in the Catskills region of upstate NY. Mason, the sixth generation to grow up on the farm, returned to the family business in 2006 and launched Cowbella yogurt and butter products in 2010.

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Shannon Mason and her family. Photo by Shannon Mason.

Historically, Danforth Jersey Farm sold all of their liquid milk for shipping on the milk truck, but Mason is working to diversify that model. In 2013, 15% of the farm’s milk was diverted from the milk truck to Cowbella products, all of which are processed on-farm, and Mason’s long-term goal is to use the entire dairy for value-added Cowbella products. When Cowbella got its start in 2010, its products were sold primarily in specialty grocery stores in upstate NY, at Farmer’s Markets, and on-farm. Cowbella’s market mix began to shift in early 2011 by wholesaling to Honest Weight Food Cooperative in Albany, Freshtown grocery in Margaretville, the Carrot Barn in Schoharie, and in 2012 local Price Chopper groceries. Today, Cowbella products can be found in 35 different locations in upstate NY, including 7 Price Choppers, 6 Tops Markets, and 4 Shop-Rites.

Mason’s most recent wholesale market is Lucky Dog Local Food Hub based in Hamden, NY. Lucky Dog connects NYC buyers to upstate NY products and specifically works with small-to-mid size farms. Lucky Dog Farm is an organic vegetable farm begun in 2000 by two farmers who transported their vegetables to regional markets in a refrigerated truck that had more room than their own vegetables could fill – so they opened up the space to fellow upstate NY farmers wanting to reach new markets. Lucky Dog Local Food Hub works in partnership with the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE) to connect with last-mile distributors and buyers in the NYC area. The charge for their delivery service is 15% of gross product value.

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Current Marketing Channels

A wholesale-dominant market mix – now representing about 95% of Cowbella’s sales – has allowed Mason to expand Cowbella product offerings to include a kefir drinkable yogurt, as well as justifying the purchase of a filling machine that speeds up the packaging of fluid milk and yogurt. Additionally, the farm is now producing enough volume that she is able to purchase pre-printed yogurt containers, eliminating the time consuming task of adding stickers to yogurt containers by hand.

In the past year, Mason has implemented a rotational grazing program across the farm’s 310 acres (some of which is corn for hay as well as forested area), replacing the free range open-pasture model the farm previously used. In addition to improving pasture health, rotational grazing allows Mason’s 40 milking head herd to enjoy a longer grazing season and more nutritious grasses. She said the change in feed quality is visible in the butter produced. When her Jersey cows are eating high quality grass, the butter made from their milk is “a very rich, bright, sunflower yellow.”

Mason is a member of a group of value-added dairy producers in the Delaware and Schoharie County areas called Catskills Family Creamery. The producer group has provided Mason with an important network of local farmers from whom she can source specialty produce, such as fruit or nuts, for use in yogurt and other Cowbella products. The 8 value-added dairy producers meet once a month to discuss issues and plan events. Last year, they hosted a field day called “Travel the Milky Way,” establishing their farms as a “dairy trail” open to the public for visiting and learning about how NY dairy products are made.

Turning milk Danforth landscape

Danforth Jersey Farm. Photo by Shannon Mason

With three generations of family living on the bustling Danforth Jersey Farm, everyone has their roles. Mason’s father handles deliveries and sales calls, while her mother and uncle help out in the barn and in the processing plant. Mason’s husband, who is also a teacher, acts as the processing plant manager, while Shannon oversees the entire Cowbella operation and takes care of the cows. She does almost all the milking herself, occasionally hosting SUNY Cobleskill dairy students who help out with barn chores. Mason also has two daughters: Beth is 8 and Daisy is 4. Currently, the family is able to keep up with Cowbella production by processing two days a week and have not needed to hire any off-farm labor. Mason acknowledges that the time and labor commitment has grown more challenging as she takes on more wholesale markets, requiring a higher volume of Cowbella products, and she foresees needing to hire some off-farm labor to work in the processing plant in the near future.

One downfall of living in the beautiful hills of the Catskills is the challenge of proximity to markets. “We do a lot of driving at this point,” Mason admitted; two major days of delivery per week, in fact, covering the Capital District all the way to Delaware County, about an hour and a half radius from their farm. A centralized drop-off location is one of the major advantages of food hub and co-op systems in particular and wholesaling in general, allowing farmers to spend more time on the farm producing products than in the car delivering them.

Finding ways to streamline processes is an important part of any business manager’s job, and Mason has found over the years that consumers really respond to simplicity. “We thought we needed to have all these flavors and varieties,” she said, “but we noticed that people put more importance on quality, and plain yogurt is still our best seller.” Wholesale marketing has allowed Mason to capitalize on efficiencies of production, while staying true to family and quality.

Abigail is a senior studying Agricultural Sciences and served as student intern to the Cornell Small Farms Program in 2014. She can be reached at arw225@cornell.edu. For more information on Danforth Jersey Farm and Cowbella products, please visit www.cowbella.com

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